Dealing with the ‘new normal’. Offering sanctuary, community and hope to children and young people in schools and local organizations

Picture - Make mine modern swop by Sarah Witherby | flickr ccbyncsa 2 licence.

Mark K Smith explores how, in the context of the ‘new normal’, educators, pedagogues and practitioners need to work to create the conditions for education, learning and change.

Contents: introductiondealing with the new normalcreating places of sanctuary, community and hopeoffering sanctuaryoffering communityoffering hopeconclusion – how do schools and organizations change? • further reading and referencesacknowledgementshow to cite this piece

Creating places of sanctuary, community, and hope for children and young people.

The emergence of COVID-19 – and the pandemic that followed – changed the lives of many millions of people. It also brought home the scale of crises we already knew about but have often chosen to ignore. Climate and ecological change, deepening inequality and transformations in the way economies work have both helped to create the conditions for the pandemic and are part of the ‘new normal’ that we must address as educators, pedagogues and practitioners.

In this piece, I want to set out what is involved in working with children and young people so that they have space to begin to explore these fundamental issues, to contain their worries, and develop their capacity to create change. Schools, colleges and many civil society organizations will have to alter the way in which they work and the focus for their activities. Here we examine three, crucial, areas for intervention – offering sanctuary, community and hope.

Dealing with the ‘new normal’

The COVID-19 ‘pandemic is a health crisis, social crisis, and economic crisis of unprecedented and permanent implications for our society’ (Scottish Government 2020). When added to existing currents of change, the ‘permanent implications’ are going to be profound. There is a deep need to ‘advance equality and protect human rights in everything we do’ (op. cit.).

The ‘new normal’ goes well beyond keeping two metres away from others in shops and on the street. It entails living and dealing with the underlying forces creating the crises, such as climate and ecological change. We are faced with existential risk. Arguably, safeguarding humanity’s future has become the challenge of our time (Ord 2020: 14). ‘The ultimate purpose is to allow our descendants to fulfil our potential, realising one of the best possible futures open to us’ (op. cit.: 33).

This has far-reaching consequences for state services, civil society and business. On the one hand, there appears to have been a significant rise in local civil action to support health and welfare activity. On the other, we have seen a major focus on, and extension of, surveillance activity such as the COVID-19 tracking apps (and associated changes in mobile operating systems by Apple and Google/Android).  To this must also be added an emphasis on remote activity, whether it be working, leisure activities and shopping. As Naomi Klein (2020) has put it:

Something resembling a coherent pandemic shock doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the Screen New Deal. Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.

There are special implications in all this for children and young people – and schooling. Talk of ‘reimagining education’ and of ‘working smarter’ has spread. The New York state governor, Andrew Cuomo is a classic example of this:

“So, it’s not about just reopening schools,” Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing. “When we are reopening schools, let’s open a better school, and let’s open a smarter education system. … Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways, and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education he’s spoken about for years, but I think we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas.” (Blad 2020)

The concern is to develop more remote ways of working with children and young people – and to reduce the cost of teaching and physical plant. The beneficiaries of this are dominant technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook; companies that are part of the existential threat we face. Schools and civil society organizations need to change. There is a place for more individualized and self-directed learning – but this can only take place in the context of in-person encounter and group activity if children and young people are to grow and flourish. Being physically present – unmediated by servers and screens – is fundamental to our development and flourishing (see, for example, Turkle 2017).

This piece argues that children and young people need sanctuary, community and hope – and that schools must develop as places where these can be experienced directly – person to person. There are other fundamental changes needed in the content and direction of the curriculum in schools and colleges, which we will not deal with here.

the new normal


Creating places of sanctuary, community and hope

Churches, schools and community groups have often looked to provide safe, friendly places where children, young people and adults can be with their peers; can broaden horizons and learn; and even organize things for themselves. Many have sought to create sanctuaries – spaces away from the pressures of daily life where children and young people are able to breathe and be themselves (see, for example, McLaughlin, Irby and Langman 1994). A lot of the stories we may hear about significant moments in people’s lives involve experiencing such ‘space’ – being in a place and having time to give room to experience and feelings.

Alongside sanctuary, one of the striking things about work with children, young people, and adults in the first half of the twentieth century is the number of times we stumble across the idea of ‘fellowship’. The word has remained a part of the vocabulary of many practitioners but has also been joined, or replaced, by ‘community’. In religious and local groups, and institutions like homes and schools, we often find concern that many feel alienated and that they do not belong. Not surprisingly, those within these settings look to work with them to cultivate relationship and a sense of ‘community’.

Sanctuary allows people space, community a sense of belonging and networks to use and contribute to. Hope, the third of our themes, looks to creating environments where people can start to move forward and to sense that flourishing is possible.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic many children and young people did not have high hopes about their future and were not that satisfied with their current experience (WHO 2016; UNICEF 2016). Climate change had become both a focus for political action by some children and young people – and there were ‘worrying levels of environment-related stress and anxiety’ among young people and children (Taylor and Murray 2020). Economically, as a group in the UK, it looked like they would be poorer at every stage of their life than their parents (O’Connor 2018; Bialek and Fry 2019). Younger generations were also having to pay significantly more to support the pensions and healthcare of those approaching, or already in, older age. John Lancaster (2019) explains:

When the retired generation is bigger than the working generation, there are obvious problems with making the sums work. You end up with different versions of the welfare state being experienced by different generations. A huge body of social science has been done on this subject, and you can sum it up in seven words: the baby boomers ate all the pies.

This combined with college loan debt, rising home prices (whether renting or buying) and more limited work opportunities mean growing financial inequality between generations.

Many also faced a further problem – widening inequality between rich and poor. Children and young people in less well-off families have been disproportionately affected by both austerity policies since the banking crisis of 2007-8 and the growing gap in income and wealth before that. The Resolution Foundation (Clarke 2019) has described the 2008-11 group in the UK as the ‘crisis cohort’. Now Covid-19 is, according to Will Hutton (2020), creating a ‘super-crisis cohort’, ‘about to experience the same effect, only worse. Unless government, business and society collectively act, what lies ahead will be unfairness heaped upon unfairness’.

Some children and young people feel that they have nothing to live for. Around one in ten children and young people aged 5-16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder (Hagell 2012). Increasing numbers of children and young people suffer from severe depression. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) operating under reduced budgets have been unable to respond and increasing numbers are being turned away.

The ‘new normal’ involves us all, both because there is a huge clearing up job and the need to address the far-reaching and continuing health, economic and social crises creating a ‘super-crisis cohort’ of children and younger people. Schools, religious groups and community organizations must respond to this post-COVID-19 situation.

Offering sanctuary

In recent times sanctuary is often used to describe a place of safety and of refuge – a space from. Its older meaning denotes a shrine or sacred place. A sanctuary garden, for example, is a place for retreat in which we can be rejuvenated emotionally and spiritually. It is a place where inner harmony may be reclaimed (Curl and Wilson 2015) – a space for.

Most children and young people do not experience great problems whilst growing up: their relationships with their parents or carers are relatively harmonious and caring, and the transitions that they make are accomplished without vast storm and stress. Yet while some flourish, most just get by. A small but significant group, however, experience serious personal troubles. A growing number suffer a diagnosable mental disorder. All require sanctuary in some form, but a sizeable group require specialist provision in institutions like schools to get away from daily pressures and have time for themselves. They need to be in settings where they are not subjected to constant demands and where they can escape, or at least contain, stress and anxiety. They may want special spaces – times and places – that allow them to feel safe and connected.

To explore sanctuary, it is useful to look in more detail at what children and young people need space from, and what they need space for. These questions link to something like the distinction popularized by Isaiah Berlin between negative liberty – which he initially defined as freedom from – and positive liberty or freedom to. The former involves a relative absence of constraints imposed by others; the latter the ability and opportunity to achieve their goals (as defined by themselves) for themselves. Most need space reasonably clear of interference and compulsion if they are to think and act for themselves (one reason why schools can fail as educational environments). In a similar way, the ability to think critically helps us to recognize why certain forms of freedom are necessary. ‘Space for’ and ‘space from’ are related.

When we ask what different children and young people need space from, and what they need space for, we get contrasting answers. But there is also extensive common ground. In part, this flows from our concerns as pedagogues, workers, and educators. Our convictions take us in certain directions. Later, we explore two areas that we believe workers should be making space for: hope and love (as expressed as community and fellowship).

To start us on this path, we will explore, briefly, what children and young people might need space from.

Space from

Pedagogues, workers, and educators have traditionally been troubled by the negative elements of local cultures, family life, schooling, and work-life. Four areas of escape are worth mentioning here.

Escaping the lowering of horizons. One of the most common worries is the limited understandings of what is possible that many children and young people are socialized into. In their families, peer groups, and schools they are pressured to conform to some picture that others have of them. The result can often be low expectations of what they can hope for from relationships, education, work, and society; and what they can give.

Escaping the criticism and dismissal of difference. Here the worry expressed by many educators, workers and pedagogues is that people fall too easily into disparaging and undermining those, for example, from other cultures, or with different sexual orientations or with ‘disabilities’. Parental attitudes and behaviours are significant but, again, the attitudes and norms of peer groups appear to have a special power.

Escaping serious personal harm in families and peer groups. In the case of the former the most prominent worry is physical and sexual abuse; in the latter it is their involvement in risky behaviours around drug and alcohol usage, and sexual activity. We also hear worries about exposure to violence both directly ‘on the street’ and more generally through film, games and the like.

Escaping from a narrow view of social distancing. One of the unfortunate side effects of recent talk of social distancing is that it focuses on the physical – and it has reinforced the idea that meeting via digital means can easily replace meeting face-to-face. This thinking has spread through the conducting of business meeting through Zoom, personal conversations between family and friends via WhatsApp and Skype – and has even entered the conduct of counselling sessions in university services. It has its uses but, as Sherry Turkle (2017) and others have shown, being together in this way is also to be alone. In the end flourishing requires the experience of co-presence.

The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by several further factors but here we focus on two: the sheer level of routine surveillance that children and young people experience in many countries; and impact of materialism and secularization. Taken together these can depress the spirit, stunt development, and get in the way of children and young people being at home with themselves and others.


There has been a significant increase in the formal surveillance and monitoring of children and young people in many countries in recent years. One of the most visible signs in many societies have been the deployment of close circuit television systems. However, it is the way state surveillance has expanded within everyday life that is a worrying aspect. Mundane activities such as course work, the use of school libraries, involvement in after-school activities and youth groups, and conversations with teachers and mentors are now routinely recorded and entered on data systems. With the interlinking of databases, this information can, and has, become available to a range of other professionals including social workers, and support workers. The growth in surveillance and monitoring by state institutions is a significant compromising of the civil rights of children and young people. Their privacy is being routinely invaded by state agencies.

It is also difficult to escape from surveillance by commercial organizations anxious to increase their profits. Organizations like Facebook, Google/Alphabet Inc, and Apple collect vast amounts of data about individual children and young people every day. This is then aggregated and used or sold on to target them to take up other services or acquire attitudes and goods. They, and we, are experiencing the full force of surveillance capitalism. Our experiences are claimed ‘as free raw material for translation into behavioral data’ (Zuboff 2019: 20). This, in turn, is used to ‘nudge, coax, tune, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes’ (op. cit.). Automated machine processes ‘not only know our behavior but also shape our behavior at scale’ (op. cit.).

Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Children and young people are also subject to surveillance by their peers online. We have known for some time that frequent use of social media leads to feelings of depression and social anxiety – and with difficulty reading human emotions, including our own (Turkle 2015: 27). We have also known about detrimental effects on sleep patterns and body image of social media usage, and how cyberbullying, grooming and ‘sexting’ can be informed by online peer surveillance and amplified by it (House of Commons 2019).

For understandable reasons, many parents too, have increased the level of routine monitoring of their children. Alongside all the established means, new technologies allow parents and carers, for example, to keep in touch via mobile devices, and check where young people are through positioning systems using the same devices. In addition, many children and young people are both spending more time in the home and living with their parents for longer periods. As a result, they can be overseen directly.

Some children and young people may barely notice this level of surveillance; many others experience it as intrusive and even suffocating. They have much less space to disconnect. As William Davis (2005: 32) has put it, ‘In a highly-interconnected society, privacy is the right to disconnect, to be anonymous and to be alone should one wish’.

Consumption and material achievement

While many societies have become richer and more prosperous, there has not been a corresponding growth in individual happiness and feelings of social well-being. Indeed, depression has risen significantly over the last 50 years in ‘developed’ countries and indices of ‘life satisfaction’ have remained where they were in the UK. Once a certain level of material well-being is achieved, having more wealth and possessions bring little or no increase in our feelings of well-being. Relationship and companionship – in families and with friends – are what seems to count, followed by having the chance to make a worthwhile contribution to society and reasonable health. Yet many consistently choose higher income and having more possessions over these things. People are not, according to Robert E Lane (2000: 9), good judges ‘of how, even within the private spheres of their own lives, to increase, let along maximize, their happiness’.

The position has been made worse by our tendency to compare our position with that of others, especially around matters of income and possessions. There is also the problem of habit. Once we have a certain experience, for example, having and being able to use washer-dryer or a smartphone, we need to have more of it to sustain our happiness. We get on what Richard Layard (2011) has called a ‘hedonic treadmill’, where we must keep running in order that our happiness stands still.

To this mix, we can add the process of secularization. When we lose a feeling for the sacred and begin to view the world through reductive rationalism rather than with awe and sense of mystery, then it is likely to result in our wanting to have more and more things rather than simply being in the world (see, for example, Tillich 1952). We try to fill the vacuum caused by a lack of true connection by linking our identity to the possession of certain brands and objects. We can begin to define ourselves by what we wear, the car we drive, where we shop and so on. Nike, Levi, Coca Cola and other major companies spend huge sums of money in promoting and sustaining their brands by seeking to make them an integral part of the way we understand or would like to see, ourselves (Klein 2000). This has had a major impact on children and young people.

All this is worrying especially given what we know about the sources of happiness. Unfortunately, we often fail to challenge the focus on consumption and branding and to focus on economic ends. Schools have increasingly come to resemble businesses, turning education into a commodity and parents and students into consumers. Branding and advertising now have an insidious presence, and, overall, schools strongly emphasize achievement and qualification so that people can advance themselves economically. Some work has also unhelpfully played into the peer status systems associated with consumption.

Space for

In our anxiety to do our best, we can sometimes do too much. It is easy for us as educators, workers, and pedagogues to start acting upon people rather than being in relation with, and to create space for, them. People need room to connect with, and think about, their feelings and experiences – and to work at the questions that arise. They need time to build community and feel hope. In this situation, there is often nothing worse than trying to give answers or provide solutions. Aside from the fact that we may well have addressed the wrong question, our ‘solutions’ can get in the way. People may well be tempted to take them on as ‘quick fixes or be diverted from attending to their feelings and experiences. The emotions involved and the possible repercussions of any changes may well be troubling and painful, or uplifting and liberating, or all these things. We need to be working so that people are welcomed, respected, and able to entertain, to hold in their minds, such doubts – and possibilities.

To ‘have space’ for something is to give room to it. Pedagogues, workers and educators must give proper room to the feelings, ideas, and experiences of children and young people. Too often young people are treated badly by agencies. There can be a tendency, for example, to view them either as problems or investments. In the case of the former, children and young people may well be threatening and troublesome. This can move beyond the obvious issues around sexuality, health, relationships, and education into their apparent rejection of schooling etc.

All of us need space to explore, connect and be. We also need ideas and examples to play with, and a framework within which to do this. Finding a balance between these is not easy and is something that many pedagogues, workers, and educators struggle with. We may work to foster experiences of space in the hope that people come to know themselves, others, and the world around them. But people also often need some help to see what is there. They require frameworks to make sense of things and assistance in reflection and in drawing out meaning and understanding. Here we focus on three aspects of what we do here as pedagogues, workers and educators – offering space to experience hospitality, containment and space for truth.


Hospitality involves being welcoming of people and receptive to new or different ways of thinking and behaving. It entails fostering convivial settings and relationships (See Palmer 1993: 71-5). In some ways, hospitality comes close to what Carl Rogers has described as one of his core conditions for facilitative practice – acceptance.

I think of it as prizing the learner, prizing her feelings, her opinions, her person. It is a caring for the learner, but a non-possessive caring. It is an acceptance of this other individual as a separate person, having worth in her own right. It is a basic trust – a belief that this other person is somehow fundamentally trustworthy… What we are describing is a prizing of the learner.

We can see two important elements at work here. First, hospitality involves a deep respect and concern for others. In order to receive them with genuine openness and care, we have, in Rogers’ (1967: 304) words, to prize an individual ‘as an imperfect human being with many feelings, many potentialities’. (We also need to prize ourselves in a similar way). Second, it requires a readiness to engage with, and learn from, questions and ways of seeing and doing things that contrast with our own. We must be able to give room to doubt and to incline our hearts to understanding (Proverbs 2:2). There are, however, limits to the behaviour we can deal with. Hospitality is a two-way process. If people do not accept our welcome, or abuse it, then there comes a point where we must keep our distance. We may want to keep in contact with them on the chance that they are able to respond in time in a reasonably civil or friendly way, but there are limits. If people are not prepared to engage in dialogue it is difficult for them to become participating members of communities.


People are more likely to talk about, and explore, questions and issues that they find difficult or painful if they are in an environment where they trust others, feel cared about and that allows some security. The spaces that we create need to be both open and bounded. Parker J. Palmer (1993: 72) describes this relationship well:

The openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries. A learning space cannot go on forever; if it did, it would not be a structure for learning but an invitation to confusion and chaos. A space has edges, perimeters, limits. When these boundaries are violated… the quality of the space is destroyed.

We create these boundaries by the sorts of people we are, the way we help others to think about task and focus, and through helping them to work on their relationships and processes in the setting. The openness of space, the possibilities of talking about doubts and issues can be frightening – and this can both confuse and put people off. Clear boundaries can help contain anxieties and allow people to work together. They work in two directions – they hold those within to a set of tasks and relationships and keep other people, tasks and relationships at bay. There comes a point where they can begin to oppress people and limit exploration. They may also act to exclude the very ideas, behaviours and people that we need to grow as communities. Containment goes hand in hand with hospitality.

Pedagogues, workers and educators need to be able to contain (or make safe) and animate (breathe life into) situations and to recognise when others do this so that people can express and explore doubt. Sometimes the doubts and questions are such that they frighten and incapacitate. One way out is to look for certainty: to find those who give leadership and answers so that we do not have to experience the pain. There is a triple danger here. First, these powerful emotions may well lead us to project capacities and thinking onto groups and leaders that they do not possess. Second, the desire to rid ourselves of doubts and worries can push us into turning away from our responsibilities. It is much more comfortable if someone else can take on the worries. Third, we can overlook the extent to which we contribute to the situation. It may be our actions, or our opinions that are helping to make the problem.


Our task also involves, in Parker J. Palmer’s (1993: 89) words, fostering spaces ‘in which obedience to truth is practised’. We must listen ‘with a discerning ear and respond faithfully to the personal implications of what one has heard’. This entails recognizing that we have much to learn and knowing that truth entails fidelity rather than conformity. It also involves entertaining doubt. As Palmer put it:

[W]e must allow the other to speak back to us, not in conformity to what we want to hear, but in fidelity to the other’s truth. The truth we are seeking, the truth that seeks us, lies ultimately in the community of being where we not only know but are known. (op. cit.)

For many pedagogues, workers and educators a call to create spaces where obedience to truth can be practised is easily understandable. However, for some the authoritarian connotations of the word ‘obedience’ may be difficult. As a result, Parker J. Palmer later has used the notion of a ‘community of truth’ instead. He has described this community as ‘a rich and complex network of relationships in which we must both speak and listen, and make claims on others, and make ourselves accountable’. We stay here with the struggle around ‘obedience’ in the hope that it encourages us to engage with the full implications of what the call to commit to truth makes upon us.

on the way to school | spoilt.exile | flickr ccbysa2

on the way to school spoilt.exile | flickr ccbysa2

Offering community

As we have already seen, many pedagogies are also focused on offering a sense of belonging and the chance to build networks to use and contribute to. But the work we do moves well beyond this. It also involves creating environments in which friendship can flourish, social capital is developed, and associational life and social change encouraged (see Gilchrist 2019). First, though, we need to be clear by what we mean by ‘offering community’.

‘Community‘ can be used as a way of describing:

A place. A local community may be a neighbourhood or ‘locality’.

Groupings of people who share a common characteristic other than place. These could be religious belief, sexual orientation, occupation or ethnic origin. In this way, we may talk about the ‘gay community’, the ‘Catholic community’ or the ‘Chinese community’. They are sometimes described as ‘elective groups’ and ‘intentional communities’.

A sense of belonging. In its weakest form we can use ‘community to mean a sense of attachment to a place, group or idea (in other words, whether there is a ‘spirit of community’). In its strongest form, ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter – not just with other people, but also with creation (and, for many, God) (See Smith 2013).

All three meanings are part of the experience of religious and community groups. They are based in place, share certain beliefs or practices and look to koinonia or fellowship). Pedagogues, educators and workers with children and young people offer the chance to join others, to be a part of something. We ask people to participate, to share in activity and to make some sort of commitment to each other. At a basic level, this involves sharing interests and working toward some goal.

When we ‘offer community’ we are inviting people to develop an attachment to a group and that involves:

  • Building a group identity and clear boundaries. People need to know what they are belonging to, and what the limits are.
  • Joining networks of relationships that offer provide support, information and access to opportunities.
  • Developing shared norms and habits such as tolerance, reciprocity and trust. (Smith 2013)

Through this, we create a context for the development of friendship, social capital and the bedrock of civil society – associational life. To offer community, we create the space and support to do these things.


Friendship – as Leonard Barnett (1962: 77) put it many years back – is the ‘mutual affection divested of sentimentality’ that is ‘the cornerstone of fellowship, adding both strength and grace to the final structure of personality’. Today it can be argued that we have a poor appreciation of what it entails. For example, Bellah et. al., drawing upon Aristotle, suggest that the traditional idea of friendship has three components: ‘Friends must enjoy each other’s company, they must be useful to one another, and they must share a common commitment to the good’ (1996: 115).

In contemporary western societies, it is sometimes suggested, we tend to define friendship in terms of the first of these elements. Many writers present friendship as private, voluntary, and happening between autonomous individuals. According to this view ‘friendship becomes a special relationship between two equal individuals involved in a uniquely constituted dyad’ (Bell and Coleman 1999: 8).

Yet while our appreciation of friendship may have narrowed, commentators like Ray Pahl (2000: 5) have argued that friendship is becoming increasingly an important ‘social glue’. He suggests that many societies are now held together by quite different social bonds than was the case, say, three centuries ago. Kinship obligations, civic responsibilities and ‘the mutual care of reciprocities engendered by being trapped in communities of fate’ (such as mining, farming and other single-industry communities) have weakened.

Basically, it seems likely that two quite distinct processes are taking place at the same time. On the one hand, friends may be taking over various social tasks, duties and functions from family and kin, simply out of practical necessity…. The second process is the changing meaning of friendship. Our ideas of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, a really close friend or a best friend are changing. Our expectations and aspirations are growing and we are even prepared to judge the quality of our relationships with kin on the basis of some higher ideal of whether we can be closer to them as friends. (op. cit.: 8)

We have little solid research on the strength of these processes – although it is developing (see Denworth 2020). What we do know is that friendship needs time, space and material resources to develop. It will be significantly affected by the social environment and setting in which it arises. For example, as people get jobs, move in with partners, have children and so on, there is an impact on the character of the friendships they can develop and sustain.

Friendships – ranging from ‘close friends’, to ‘mates’ and to what might be called ‘acquaintances’ – play an important part in children’s and young people’s lives. They are a voluntary part of social networks. In part because they are chosen, friendships provide children and young people with crucial experiences of sharing, companionship and affirmation. They can provide support when going through difficult or trying times. The quality of relationships with peers appears to have great significance both in terms of how they feel about themselves now – and what they might become. For example, from the research we do have it does appear that the nature of the relationships we are able to form as children and young people can have a significant impact on the nature of the friendships we are able to make in adult life.

Ray Pahl (2000: 99-101) has set out a tentative model to describe the various stages:

Aged 3/4. Children start to use the term ‘friend’ to describe playmates

Aged 4/7. Children start to appreciate that own views and identity is different from others

Aged 6/12. Children start to be able to ‘put themselves in other peoples’ shoes’.

Aged 9/15. Children/young people are able to take on the perspective of a ‘third person’; to look at interactions and, thus, to work on relationships.

Aged 12+. There is a recognition that individual friendship is part of a larger network of relationships – and that friends are linked with others in ‘personal communities’.

Models like this are open to debate – and can lead to rather wooden interventions to ensure that children have reached the appropriate stage. It is also important to recognize that the effect of childhood experiences is not set in stone. Relationships in adulthood can change us. However, this doesn’t take us away from the central point. ‘Fellowship’ and friendship are entwined and for most people, it seems, friendships bring happiness and a sense of wellbeing (as well as all sorts of duties and worries).

For these reasons the cultivation of friendship between children and young people, and the offering of a form of friendship (a friend ‘to’ rather than ‘of’) on the part of educators, pedagogues and workers have been a fundamental aspect of social pedagogy with vulnerable young people (and general youth work up until the last quarter of the twentieth century). It has been both an aim (facilitating and educating for friendship), a way of describing participants, and seen as an educational process (Doyle and Smith 2002). It is also seen as a means of providing affirmation and support. The act of befriending young people – especially those who may feel they have few friends – can be experienced as significant. As many writers have commented over the years, pedagogues and youth workers are often one of the first adults that young people and children choose to be friendly with.

Social capital

Here we use ‘social capital’ to refer to ways in which ‘networks and their properties (including norms and trust) comprise a resource for their members’ (Field 2017: 45). The basic thesis is that interaction allows people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people. People living in communities where there is plenty of social capital are more likely to be healthier, better educated, less prone to crime and happier (see Putnam 2000).

Debates around social capital provide us with some useful insights. Of interest is the difference between bridging, bonding or linking social capital. Michael Woolcock (2001: 13-4) has described them as follows:

  • Bonding social capital… denotes ties between people in similar situations, such as immediate family, close friends and neighbours;
  • Bridging social capital… encompasses more distant ties of like persons, such as loose friendships and workmates; and
  • Linking social capital… reaches out to unlike people in dissimilar situations, such as those who are entirely outside the community, thus enabling members to leverage a far wider range of resources than are available within the community.

These differences can be applied to the approaches to ‘community’ that appear within civil society organizations. Where there is a focus on one to the detriment of the others an unhealthy situation can develop. For example, where there is an emphasis upon bonding (or ‘exclusive’) community will tend to be inward-looking and ‘tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups’. It can increase antagonism to those outside the group. The upside of ‘bonding’ relationships is that they are good for cultivating reciprocity and mutual aid among members. On the other hand, a focus on bridging (or inclusive) community while being good for sharing beliefs, ideas and information with others, for making links, and for creating broader identities, it can make our ‘home base’ less viable. As Robert D. Putnam (2000: 23) has put it, bonding social capital provides ‘a sort of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD40’. In a similar fashion, a lack of attention to linking means that a group is not able to access important resources or to share their experiences with others outside their immediate circle.

Associational life

Association – joining together in companionship often to undertake some task, and the educative power of playing one’s part in a group or association (Doyle and Smith 1999; Smith 2012) – has been a central concern for many pedagogues, workers and educators for over a century. Those concerned with association have tended to look beyond the utility and practical benefits of being a member of a club or group. They present it as ‘a chosen means to pursue some common purpose and that in doing so, through fellowship with others, the individual enhances his or her personal capacities’ (Hirst 1994: 49).

For many pedagogues, workers and educators, association – and its concrete expression in the idea of the club – has also been a strong feature of their thinking and it is important to review why. Three main arguments have been made for the fostering of associational life.

Associational life as affirming and uplifting. Groups can become a clear point of reference, a way of helping people to locate themselves. By naming ourselves members of this group or organization, or that, we can feel more at home in the world and less isolated. At one level by belonging to a group we are saying that we are like the other members in some significant way and that we are doing is significant. Studies of voluntary groups and associations repeatedly report on the growth of confidence and of belief in oneself that is involved in active membership (Elsdon 1995; Hemmings 2011).

Associational life as education. Not only do associations allow members to follow enthusiasms and take part in activities and tasks that would not be possible as individuals but they can also be places where people can have the experience of learning to live and work co-operatively. Indeed, they can become ‘learning communities’.  Associational life helps to create ‘habits of the heart’: mores that allow people to connect with each other and the wider community. Of interest here to pedagogues and practitioners, is the extent to which associational life helps to foster virtues such as cherishing the members of this ‘community of friends’, serving others and being hopeful.

Associational life as community-building and growing civil society. The fostering of associational life among children and young people, it has been argued, is of great significance for community. Some start with the obvious argument that activities that bring children and young people into contact with local groups and communities are vital for the survival of society. Second, there is the power of encounter or meeting. It is not only that adults and young people can learn from each other – but in that meeting, they can glimpse beyond the everyday. Furthermore, one of the significant features of associations is that they provide a structure and form that allow their members not only to organize themselves and to set norms of behaviour, they also provide a means of relating to other groups within the community and bodies beyond it.

The thing about associational forms like the club is that they aren’t just preparation for participation in civil society; they are civil society – the array of voluntary, independent groups, associations and institutions that lay beyond the boundaries of the state, family and market (see Edwards 2014). As one writer has put it, ‘These groups are voluntary – some are more structured than others, some are more effectively permanent than others – but they are all made up of unrelated individuals who come together to pursue a specific common interest or concern’ (Beem 1999: 13-14). They both provide their members with considerable benefits, and they mediate between the state and the individual.

Strengthening civil society and deepening associational life have been a necessary counterbalance to excessive individualism on one hand, and totalitarianism on the other. Indeed, there are those who argue that civil society should have a far greater role to play if people are to flourish. Democracy can be seen more as a way of living than a set of representative voting arrangements.

Social change

A number of those involved in early work did not want to leave things at that. Living in communities and societies within which there were deep inequalities and severe limits on freedom, they wanted social and political change.

One of the most significant, but largely forgotten, figures in developing this thinking was R. H. (Harry) Tawney. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s he came to be deeply critical of much church charity work, labelling it as ‘mere ambulance work for the victims of class privilege’ (1953: 184). He argued for a much stronger educational experience and for working with people so that they may organize themselves both to develop mutual aid and to campaign.

Like John Dewey, Tawney wanted to build a common life – to embrace all those in a community. Unlike Dewey, however, Tawney understood the political and social transformations that it might entail. Fellowship or comradeship, thus, was not just a matter of feelings, ‘but as a matter of right relationships‘ which are institutionally based‘ (op. cit.: 267).

Tawney also came to recognize that capitalism could not, in the end, provide a suitable environment for the formation of ‘right relationships’: that the institutions it fostered were not conducive to the good life for all. It generated a ‘faith’ in acquisitiveness and a loss of social cohesion. Tawney judged that as capitalism developed, facilitating community and mutual aid would become more difficult. Other currents were also running against his vision, in particular the ebbing away of religious belief in Britain and many other countries. However, there were pockets of possibility. The noblest aspect of popular movements in Britain, Tawney commented, ‘has been the unbreakable spirit of comradeship embodied in them’ (op. cit.). The same could be said of more recent organizing such that involved in Extinction Rebellion (see Klein 2019; Smith 2020). Within movements, Tawney argued, ‘[R]ight relationships among free and equal individuals’ could be encouraged and facilitated and comradeship made possible. However, it could not be organized for others – it had to arise out of the activities of those involved’ (op. cit.: 267-8). He viewed it as an end – the ‘right condition of life for human beings’ (op. cit.: 199).

The challenge for schools and community organizations and groups is how to facilitate these things, for it is the knowledge that things can change – and then the experience and feeling of making change – that allows hope to grow.

an orkney greenhouse | infed

sweet peas, spring 2020 | infed


I think that of all the attributes that I would like to see in my children or in my pupils, the attribute of hope would come high, even top, of the list. To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live. Hope is akin to energy, to curiosity, to the belief that things are worth doing. An education which leaves a child without hope is an education that has failed. (Warnock 1986: 182)

Hope is something more than optimism. It is not simply looking on the bright side or believing that ‘everything was, is, or will be fine’ (Solnit 2016: 12). John Maquarrie (1978) has provided us with a starting point for thinking about what it might be. For him hope is:

An emotion. Hope, he says, ‘consists in an outgoing and trusting mood toward the environment’ (op. cit.: 11). We do not know what will happen but take a gamble. ‘It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk’ (Solnit 2016: 21)..

A choice or intention. Hope is one of the great theological virtues – standing alongside faith and love. It ‘promotes affirmative courses of action’ (op. cit.).

Expectation makes life good, for in expectation man can accept his whole present and find joy not only in its joy but also in its sorrow, happiness not only in its happiness but also in its pain… That is why it can be said that living without hope is like no longer living. Hell is hopelessness, and it is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the words: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ (Moltmann 1967, Introduction)

An intellectual activity. Hope is not just feeling or striving, according to Macquarrie it has a cognitive or intellectual aspect. ‘[I]t carries in itself a definite way of understanding both ourselves and the environing processes within which human life has its setting’ (op. cit.).

All of this provides us with a language to help make sense of things and to imagine change for the better – a ‘vocabulary of hope’. It helps us to critique the world as it is and our part in it, and not to just imagine change but also to plan it (Moltman 1967, 1971). It also allows us, and others, to ask questions of our hopes, to request evidence for our claims. It is a matter of faith informed by reflection and reason.

Yet hope needs something more. ‘The idea that hope alone will transform the world’, wrote Paulo Freire (1994: 8), ‘and action undertaken in that kind of naïveté, is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism’. Hope and action are linked. As Rebecca Solnit (2016: 22)  put it, ‘Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope… To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable’.

Being hopeful

Within psychology, there has been quite a lot of work around what might make people hopeful and how that might impact on physical and mental health and the way in which we function (see, for example, Gallagher and Lopez 2018). Rick Snyder, a professor whose own battle against chronic pain was part of the reason he researched hope, has focussed on the psychology of creating pathways. He and his colleagues argued that hopeful thought ‘reflects the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals and become motivated to use those pathways’ (2002: 257-76). He also stressed the importance of agency – the belief that we have the capacity to act to change things. Snyder also proposed that such hope serves to drive the emotions and well-being of people. Here I have drawn upon their approach – but placed it within ways of thinking about hope that looks to being hopeful rather than just hopeful thinking (important as it is). Not surprisingly, given our focus here, it looks to matters of the spirit and to the question ‘how am I to best live my life?’.

It is also important to bear in mind that pedagogues, workers and educators, act in hope. Underpinning our actions is an attitude or virtue – hopefulness (Halpin 2003b). As bell hooks (2003: xiv) put it, ‘we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know’. In other words, we invite people to learn and act in the belief that change for the good is possible. This openness to possibility is not blind or over-optimistic. It looks to evidence and experience and is born of an appreciation of the world’s limitations (Halpin 2003a: 19-20).

Building hope

The approach we are discussing here is not goal-oriented in the way that many self-help books and state curricula are. You set a goal, then plan how to achieve it, and test to see whether it has been achieved. Instead, it flows from what we discussed earlier. As pedagogues, workers and educators we invite people to reflect, commit and act. It is a process that we can do for ourselves and encourage others to develop.

Alison Gopnik (2016) has provided a helpful way of understanding this orientation. It is that educators, pedagogues and practitioners need to be gardeners rather than carpenters. A key theme emerging from her research over the last 30 years, is that children learn by actively engaging their social and physical environments – not by passively absorbing information. They learn from other people, not because they are being taught – but because people are doing and talking about interesting things. The emphasis in a lot of the literature about parenting (and teaching) presents the roles much like that of a carpenter.

You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with.

Instead, Gopnik argues, the evidence points to being a gardener.

When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labor and the sweat of our brows, with a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure. And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted. The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink, the rose that was supposed to climb the fence stubbornly remains a foot from the ground, black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated.

The image of gardening connects nicely with that of pedagogy, which can be viewed as a process of accompanying people, and:

  • bringing flourishing and relationship to life (animation)
  • caring for, and about, people (caring); and
  • drawing out learning (education) (Smith 2012; 2019a).


We find this focus right from the start in the distinction made within ancient Greek society between the activities of pedagogues (paidagögus) and subject teachers (didáskalos). The latter, as Kant (1900: 23-4) put it, ‘train for school only, the other for life’. In short, pedagogues set out with the idea that all should share in life, and an appreciation of what people may need to flourish. In many ways we are also asking the same questions as Kant (1787) – What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?

Four key concerns

From our discussion, we can see that we need to be doing at least four things.

Picking up on questions or situations with a concern for flourishing. We encourage people to look to questions or situations that an individual or group want exploring. We foster reflection: going back to experiences, attending to, and connecting with feelings, developing understandings.

We also need to think about how we approach this reflection and – indeed – the rest of our journey. We need to think about our disposition – or what German social pedagogues call Haltung. It is sometimes translated as mindset or attitude, but it is more about how actions are influenced and guided by what we believe in. Here we are going to turn back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks and use what they called phronesis. This is a moral disposition to act truly and rightly, a concern for flourishing.

Thinking about what might be good. We all come to situations and questions with some idea of what might make us or others happy in life. Over time we reflect on our experiences, and the situations that others have faced, and gain some insights. Sometimes, perhaps because of the way we are feeling or because we want to avoid looking at some aspect of our or other’s behaviour, we get things wrong or appreciate only half a situation. As pedagogues, workers and educators we can listen and learn from the experiences of others. We can also look at research on what people say makes them happy.

When researchers talk to people about what makes them happy, and what causes them pain, a pretty consistent set of answers emerge. For example, Robert E. Lane’s (2000) influential study showed strong links between subjective feelings of well-being and companionship (by which Lane meant family solidarity and friendship). We gain happiness through our relationships with other people. He argued, ‘it is their affection or dislike, their good or bad opinion of us, their acceptance or rejection that most influences our moods’. To all this we can add what we know of the significance of relationship and attachment in the early years of human life – particularly in the home. Lane found that once people rise above the poverty level happiness tends to lie in the quality of friendships and of family life. Increased income and the possession of more and more material goods have little impact on feelings of well-being.

Other writers have used a range of published research and have come to broadly the same conclusions. According to Richard Layard (2011), for example, when we look at happiness certain factors stand out: the quality of family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends and health. He also argued that personal values and freedom as also key. Recent work has highlighted the importance of health (especially mental health) alongside family life and life at work (Layard with Ward 2020: 34) and the extent to which inequality creates social anxiety and social withdrawal (Wilkinson and Pickett 2018).

Looking for pathways to action. Snyder and his colleagues stressed the importance of ‘pathways thinking’. People need to view themselves as being able to generate routes to what they want. They need to be able to generate at least one, and often more, usable pathway. There is obviously an emotional dimension here, but there are also big questions about the access they have to the resources and opportunities they need. One of the classic things that pedagogues, workers and educators do in their work with young people is helping them to access and to find a path through, remote systems. This can range from dealing with social workers to making an application for housing. Another is to foster and open up networks and alternative forms of support and access.

Encouraging people to believe in themselves. Being hopeful requires believing in ourselves – particularly believing that we can make use of the pathway chosen. It helps, of course, if there are people around you who believe in you, and that you can see people making use of pathways and gaining happiness in some way.

This is one of those areas that pedagogues, workers and educators often struggle with. Just how much should we intervene? When do we step back and leave things to the individual or group concerned? We can get in the way of people taking responsibility, on the other hand, if we do not give support at times, then people may not be able to take the first few steps.

Conclusion – how do schools and organizations change?

What practical steps can schools and local organizations take to create places of sanctuary, community and hope? There are some basic things to bear in mind in the short run:

  • Start small and avoid grand plans. This will involve a way of thinking and working based in organic growth (which might be quite quick) and diverse solutions.
  • Look around at the spaces, activities and practices you have – and consider how they may be used or strengthened as places of sanctuary, community and hope.
  • Release the inner pedagogue – this is not a didactic way of working and has to run alongside more traditional forms of teaching.
  • Encourage the development of clubs and groups that are organized and managed by their members. In schools this means, in particular, attending to lunchtime and after school activity, and to the significance of music and art.
  • Consider what specialist provision you might need for different groupings of children and young people.

Three more fundamental tasks for those working in schools are to:

  • Let go of the idea that schools are fundamentally about teaching a curriculum. They are also places of pedagogy – of animation, care and education. There is a real sense in which we need to reinvent the school if it is to properly address the needs of children and young people.
  • Value the work of specialist pedagogues, educators and care givers. A common characteristic of occupational groups is to look down on other occupational groups – and to think they know best. This is especially the case where one group (in this case teachers) is dominant in an institution.
  • Work to convince funders (and in particular state funders) that resources are needed to employ a much wider range of practitioners.

The work and commitment of many of those involved in work with children, young people and communities is powerful. While the institutional environment within which they work is significant, it is the integrity, faith and critical engagement of practitioners that, in the end, carry the potential to foster flourishing. We need educators, pedagogues and workers who are disposed and able to journey in hope, join in community with others, and create with children and young people space for relationship, reflection and experience.

Further reading and references

For those new to social pedagogy or to the way in which we are talking about pedagogy here there are a number of articles on infed that may be helpful.

The core processes of social pedagogy – animation, care and education – are discussed in a new article: Animate, care, educate – the core processes of social pedagogy.

Within informal education and social pedagogy, the character and integrity of practitioners are seen as central to the processes of working with others. The German notion of ‘haltung’ draws together key elements around this pivotal concern for pedagogues and informal educators. Explore this in another infed article: Haltung, pedagogy and informal education.

For an overview of developments in theory and practice: social pedagogy.

Many discussions of pedagogy make the mistake of seeing it as primarily being about teaching. Rather pedagogy needs to be explored through the thinking and practice of those educators who look to accompany learners; care for and about them; and bring learning into life. Teaching is just one aspect of their practice: What is pedagogy?


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Acknowledgements: The material here on sanctuary and hope grew out of some work undertaken by Michele Erina Doyle and myself on Christian youth work for the Joseph Rank Trust some years back (see Doyle and Smith 1999) – and from recent work with Giles Barrow and others on the development of the role of the pedagogue within specialist education. The interest in community and education comes from much further back – work undertaken as part of a Department of Education Science (England) developmental project on political education – and from ongoing work with Tony Jeffs (see Jeffs and Smith 2020).

Picture – Make mine modern swap by Sarah Witherby | flickr ccbyncsa 2 licence.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2020). Dealing with the ‘new normal’. Offering sanctuary, community and hope to children and young people in schools and local organizations. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2020

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